Why Shadowrun Is the Perfect D&D Alternative

Shadowrun cover art

Shadowrun’s blend of fantasy and cyberpunk elements makes it an excellent alternative for D&D fans looking to try out a new role-playing system.

Wizards of the Coast’s attempt to add new restrictions to Dungeons & Dragons‘ Open Games License has been met with fierce backlash from the tabletop role-playing community, and many D&D players have made their opinion known by switching to other TTRPG systems. While fantasy-themed TTRPGs like Pathfinder are a reliable alternative for D&D players who want to stick with what they know, Catalyst Game Labs’ Shadowrun is an excellent choice for those seeking a different kind of fantasy adventure.

With a setting that blurs the line between cyberpunk and urban fantasy, Shadowrun is the perfect TTRPG for D&D players looking to dip their toes into the realm of science fiction. Although Shadowrun‘s gameplay system has more in common with Cyberpunk: Red than D&D, its world is filled with fantastical creatures and magical artifacts that will make wary D&D fans feel at home.

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Shadowrun Is Perfect for an Urban Fantasy & Cyberpunk Campaign

<!–[if IE 9]> <![endif]–>A crowded arena watches a band perform in Shadowrun.

Developed by the now-defunct FASA and released in 1989, Shadowrun takes the familiar tropes of medieval high fantasy and places them into a setting reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and William Gibson’s Neuromancer. Set in the far future of an alternate Earth where long-dormant supernatural beings and forces reawakened on the final day of the Mesoamerican Long Count Calendar, the world of Shadowrun stays true to the cyberpunk genre’s core themes of transhumanism and unchecked corporate power while putting a fantastical spin on its iconic aesthetic.

While Shadowrun‘s setting contains a plethora of highly advanced technology that cannot be replicated in D&D without extensive homebrew, the so-called “Sixth World” is home to many fantasy elements that should feel very familiar to D&D players. Thanks to the mutagenic nature of Shadowrun‘s magic, its version of Earth is populated by many iconic fantasy creatures, such as elves, orcs, and giants, many of which are almost one-to-one translations of their D&D counterparts in terms of both physical appearance and general personality. Shadowrun‘s world is also littered with powerful and fun-to-use magical artifacts that can serve as either campaign MacGuffins or quest rewards.

Shadowrun‘s gameplay and role-playing system also share many similarities with D&D. While Shadowrun determines the success or failure of players’ actions by having them roll pools of six-sided dice rather than D&D‘s emblematic 20-sided dice, it still encourages players to work as a team to defeat enemies and solve problems. With several genre-appropriate classes or “archetypes” that range from cybernetically enhanced mercenaries and hackers to sorcerers adept in a wide variety of magical disciplines, Shadowrun challenges players to build a crew that can overcome whatever obstacle its post-apocalyptic science-fantasy world might throw at them.

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Shadowrun’s Setting & System Offer Players Greater Freedom

<!–[if IE 9]> <![endif]–>Shadowrun

Although Shadowrun‘s similarities to D&D make it easy for long-time players of the latter to ease themselves into the former, its radically different setting makes it an excellent alternative for players looking to branch out into new genres. While D&D has added many new campaign settings that deviate from its quest-based high fantasy roots, the game has never been able to leave them behind. Shadowrun‘s Sixth World, on the other hand, challenges players to explore sprawling city-scapes and thwart sinister corporate conspiracies or confront goblin street gangs, allowing DMs to craft a campaign that mixes the best elements of cyberpunk and urban fantasy to create one satisfying adventure.

Another critical difference between Shadowrun and D&D is how the former incorporates player progression. Unlike D&D, which locks players into a strict path of progression based on gaining levels in their class, players in Shadowrun earn “karma” points that can be used to upgrade their core stats. While it’s likely that most players will gain skills that benefit their starting archetype, Shadowrun gives players the freedom to build their character however they choose. This allows for memorable set-piece moments where players utilize skills outside their apparent areas of expertise to escape dire situations by the skin of their teeth.

While Shadowrun‘s futuristic aesthetic makes it nearly impossible to use it as a replacement system for an ongoing D&D campaign, its unique setting and freeform gameplay system make it an excellent alternative for players looking to dip their toes into a new genre. With a perfect blend of fantasy adventure and cyberpunk intrigue, Shadowrun is a system D&D players shouldn’t pass up.


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